A look back at the 1971 Harley-Davidson Super Glide and the history of the term “Superbike.”
Marketing surveys today are the lifeblood of motorcycle product planners. Time spent in the field questioning enthusiasts and potential customers helps corporate bigwigs determine what models to build in coming years.
Things were different 50 years ago, when product planners relied heavily on what they thought consumers would buy rather than using hard data to set the course. Nobody knows that better than Willie G. Davidson, Harley-Davidson's former chief stylist and grandson of William Davidson, one of H-D's founders. Willie G. joined The Motor Company's design and styling department during the 1960s. By 1969, he sketched a design that warranted attention by Harley's front office. "I lived in a unique time," recalls Willie G. "I didn't have committees to go through with new models." Instead, he and other stylists and marketing strategists moved forward with designs they calculated — and hoped — would work. One of Willie G.'s early designs was the FX Super Glide, a hybrid with the lightweight front end of an XL Sportster attached to the massive frame of an FL Electra Glide. Thus the FX nomenclature.
But what about the name Super Glide? Well, that partially came about because during that same period the motorcycle industry was searching for words to describe the growing onslaught of powerful motorcycles with their multi-cylinder engines from Japan. Words like "Oriental Expresses" and "Monsterbikes" (quoted in Cycle magazine's August 1968 and March 1969 issues, respectively), were used in editorial, but the word that eventually stuck was "Superbike."
Most insiders point to the Honda CB750 as the iconic Superbike, and the word pops up in various periodicals from the era. One early Superbike reference appeared in the June 1970 issue of Cycle Guide, where the editors used it in a two-page spread forecasting what would become Harley's 1971 FX Super Glide. The article, titled "We Predict...", opened with the following lead sentence: "Portrayed here is probably Milwaukee's answer to the current trend of hotter than hot production motorcycles. This "Superbike" could once and for all re-establish HD as the 'out-performer.'" The article described the bike in minute detail, right down to wheel sizes and the "Sportster front end featuring a small tucked in headlight."
Today, Willie G. says that, following a special marketing survey conducted in early 1969, photos of the FX prototype appeared later that same year on the pages of Peterson Publishing's Motorcycle Sport Quarterly, edited by the late Bob Greene. "We planted the photos of the bike in his [Greene's] magazine to see if we could get some feedback from people," Willie G. recently explained. Next, Willie and the Boys tried another source, Cycle Guide, and that 1970 article included four artist renderings of a phantom bike.
Finally, the production Super Glide appeared on Cycle's November 1970 cover. The test report inside revealed that the FX sprinted through the quarter-mile in 13.90 seconds at 96.25mph — Superbike specs for that era. The editors' parting words on the new "Superbike" stated: "The Super Glide faces you brazenly: it is what it is — massive bolts attaching massive appurtenances to a massive frame and a seat configuration that stretches over the horizon, the whole issue propelled along by an enthusiastic engine neither having nor wanting any excuses."